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The London Particular

"a fog named after the soup eventually became a soup named after the fog." Londonist

David suggested a new 'series' of blogs the other day - a trip around the world looking at their cuisines. Yes, I know - not that original and also a bit difficult - I mean France! Obviously you can't just do one post on France. So I wasn't that enthused to be honest. But I thought about it a bit, and decided I could just dip into some - like France, that come up time and time again, and be a bit more detailed with lesser known cuisines. Just ramble around something specific perhaps with a nod to the general.

So here I go. I decided to begin with the country of my birth, and here I will be even more specific and begin with London - where I spent my childhood. Well the outer edges thereof anyway. The fog in the picture is because the dish I chose has London in its name - The London Particular - otherwise known as pea and ham soup and the thick fogs of London were known as pea soupers and also as the London Particular. Not very exciting you might say but bear with me because as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says:

"For the apex of culinary achievement, you really need look no further than a top-notch soup"

His version is shown here and like its name it doesn't look that exciting either, but stay with me, and take to heart these further words of wisdom from the man with the impossible name:

"Soup's real strength is our enduring love for it. Unlike some more recherché culinary inventions, we never tire of it. On a cold winter's day, soup lifts the spirits, comforts, warms. It soothes us when we're ill and keeps us going when we're broke. It raises expectations at the beginning of a meal or – with the addition of that other unshakable staple, good bread – it can be the meal." ...

It's winter now, so pea and ham soup is perfect for the times, and also the mood which has been a bit down of late, as he continues:

"I reckon a great soup has the power to lift my mood more than any other dish. It's partly because you can't eat a hot soup quickly – or at least you'd be a fool to try. Soup encourages you to slow down, sip, sup, savour, linger a little longer. And if that's not the perfect recipe for a great weekend, I don't know what is." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

In fact I have decided rather late in life, and also rather against my weakness for gorgeous looking food, that, to be corny, you can't judge a book by its cover when it comes to food - neither the cookbook nor the appearance of the dishes. Yes, sometimes the spectacular looking things also taste good, but not always. Some of my favourite things to eat, are really not that classy to look at, although beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder. And neither is pea soup. Of all soups, pea soup is perhaps particularly unattractive, although I don't know why. Maybe it's a class thing - pease porridge, mashed peas set beside a meat pie and bought from a truck. Also the dried peas from which it is made are definitely poor man's food. It's a London thing, but also a widespread English thing. In fact I did think that mushy peas - no I think that's an Australian name - were a northern thing. Anyway pea soup is one of those foods that we mostly don't get excited about.

To explain a little further how I arrived at the London Particular for my London example - I first checked out my old book by Theodora Fitzgibbon - A Taste of London in Food and Pictures. It was a toss up for me between afternoon tea and Chelsea buns - another London named thing and the soup. But I've just done some sweet things - Eccles cakes - and I've done afternoon tea before too. For me the first thing I thought of was jellied eels - a concept that is completely revolting to me, although for all I know they may be delicious. It's just those live eels I used to see in a tank in East Ham in my childhood. They've traumatised me for life. So I'm not going there. Maybe I should sometime.

What else did I extract from Theodora Fitzgibbon's book? Boiled beef and carrots with dumplings, Toad-in-the Hole, Jam rolly-poly, Crumpets, Mixed grill, and Meat pies - most of which I think I have done before, and besides I wasn't sure that they were specifically London rather than just English - or indeed from some other spot. So London Particular it is.

First - the brief history, which you probably know anyway. Victorian London was notorious for its fogs, due to all those coal fires, and the industry that was also coal-fired. Many people died as a result. Monet painted it lots of times, because he thought it beautiful:

“What I love more than anything in London is the fog. Without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city.” Monet

There have always been fogs in London of course, because of the Thames valley. However they were particularly bad in the nineteenth century although they continued into the twentieth, culminating in the great smogs of 1952 and 1962. I remember them well, but I was interested to see photographs like this one, of the 1952 fog, which to my mind show something much milder than it actually was. The photograph at the top of the page is the closest I could find. You almost literally could not see your hand in front of your face, certainly no further than a yard or two. I remember walking to school - primary school - and when I came to roads that had to be crossed, waiting for a long time to make sure I heard no vehicles, because you certainly couldn't see them. I also think that these fogs were much more common than just the week they talk about in 1952.

How does this relate to the soup? Well although there had been fogs since at least medieval times, and pea soup too it wasn't really until later that the fogs were called pea soupers, and eventually in London, perhaps because of the colour, they came to be called the London Particular - a term that Charles Dickens popularised in his novel Bleak House. A brief aside - a particular brand of Madeira was also called The London Particular - it was brownish.

And then the venerable institution of Simpsons-in-the-Strand hit upon the idea of calling their pea and ham soup The London Particular. I doubt that many call it that these days unless they want to be a bit twee.

There is no single recipe of course. The soup is made from dried split peas - not fresh or frozen ones - and I have a bag of yellow ones, just waiting to be opened and used. Yellow are supposedly the traditional ones, but Felicity Cloake says:

"I’d urge you to seek out the green sort; they have a sweeter, earthier flavour and thicken the soup better."

It seems everyone has their favourite here. They also argue about soaking them overnight or even for a few hours. Many seem to think it's not necessary these days. Felicity Cloake says that if you must you could soak them whilst you make the stock with the ham - but then many just put a ham bone in with the soup and water, and don't make the stock separately - or indeed - use chicken stock. One thing that seems to be true is that the yellow ones don't take as long to cook. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall even suggests that you could use green lentils instead.

Other ingredients - well the ham - a ham hock is the thing here, although if you have a bone with some meat left on it, then use that. Of course the trendies will start suggesting options like chorizo sausage and pancetta. It's a moveable feast. Vegetables? Carrots, celery, onions. The usual suspects. Go improvise. I really don't think this is true recipe territory, but just in case, I found a few: Great British Recipes; Sainsbury's Magazine in the guise of Tamsin Burnett-Hall who trained with Delia; Delia herself; Tom Kerridge and our own, late Valli Little of delicious. who gets the name wrong and calls it The London Peculiar. The closest Ottolenghi gets to it is a Ham hock and red lentil soup, which, I think, is different enough, though a natural progression, to ignore.

Jamie doesn't seem to do a pea and ham soup with dried peas, although he does do this rather impressive looking stew which he simply calls Ham and peas. Well I suppose it's a short step from soup to stew or vice versa. He describes it himself as:

"kind of like a quicker, more modern version of boiled bacon and pease pudding.”

So yes I think that when you talk about London food, the London Particular is a good one to choose because of the association with the fogs, that probably still exist and the name of course.. River mists anyway. I remember hearing the fog horns of the ships on the river, from our home in Hornchurch, and the school bus trips home early from our school high on a hill above it all, further into Essex. As we descended the hill the bus would suddenly come up against a wall of dense fog. On one occasion it was involved in a pile-up of eleven vehicles, who all, fairly gently, bumped into each other. We had to wait in the cold and the mist for another bus to come and get us.

I love fog, and mist. It's mysterious, beautiful, and quiet. I love the silence it seems to create. When we lived in the Adelaide hills the ever-changing pattern of the mist as it showed and hid the amazing view was inspiring.

So David - it will be the London Particular sometime this week. I'll choose an appropriately miserable day.

London Food - done.

"For me, London is all about –tradition, the unfashionable stuff that makes me feel like an old-school British chef: hotel dining rooms, afternoon tea at the Ritz and, on the other end of the spectrum, hearty, economical stews put together cheaply to feed the smoggy capital’s masses in Victorian times." Tom Kerridge

It's also possibly apposite to begin with soup. It's a very early food, and it's the beginning of a meal after all:

"We invented fire. We roasted meats. We made pots. We cooked soup. That's the story of culinary evolution in a nutshell." Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

The first in a series, that may or may not continue. We shall see. Next stop England - the whole thing.


Just to show how out of it I am, David pointed out to me, that in my post on girl dinner I mentioned that Elon Musk had closed Tim-Tok down. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That was Twitter. Completely - well sort of - different.


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